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Wednesday, December 8, 2021

Robot Evolution: Ethical Concerns

Eiban, A.E., Ellers, J, et al.
Front. Robot. AI, 03 November 2021


Rapid developments in evolutionary computation, robotics, 3D-printing, and material science are enabling advanced systems of robots that can autonomously reproduce and evolve. The emerging technology of robot evolution challenges existing AI ethics because the inherent adaptivity, stochasticity, and complexity of evolutionary systems severely weaken human control and induce new types of hazards. In this paper we address the question how robot evolution can be responsibly controlled to avoid safety risks. We discuss risks related to robot multiplication, maladaptation, and domination and suggest solutions for meaningful human control. Such concerns may seem far-fetched now, however, we posit that awareness must be created before the technology becomes mature.


Robot evolution is not science fiction anymore. The theory and the algorithms are available and robots are already evolving in computer simulations, safely limited to virtual worlds. In the meanwhile, the technology for real-world implementations is developing rapidly and the first (semi-) autonomously reproducing and evolving robots are likely to arrive within a decade (Hale et al., 2019; Buchanan et al., 2020). Current research in this area is typically curiosity-driven, but will increasingly become more application-oriented as evolving robot systems can be employed in hostile or inaccessible environments, like seafloors, rain-forests, ultra-deep mines or other planets, where they develop themselves “on the job” without the need for direct human oversight.

A key insight of this paper is that the practice of second order engineering, as induced by robot evolution, raises new issues outside the current discourse on AI and robot ethics. Our main message is that awareness must be created before the technology becomes mature and researchers and potential users should discuss how robot evolution can be responsibly controlled. Specifically, robot evolution needs careful ethical and methodological guidelines in order to minimize potential harms and maximize the benefits. Even though the evolutionary process is functionally autonomous without a “steering wheel” it still entails a necessity to assign responsibilities. This is crucial not only with respect to holding someone responsible if things go wrong, but also to make sure that people take responsibility for certain aspects of the process–without people taking responsibility, the process cannot be effectively controlled. Given the potential benefits and harms and the complicated control issues, there is an urgent need to follow up our ideas and further think about responsible robot evolution.